Former South Carolina running back David Williams / Photo: GamecocksOnline.com
The loss of Rawleigh Williams III dealt a serious blow to the depth and maturity of the Arkansas Razorbacks running backs roster.
Williams, a rising junior, gave up football after suffering his second neck injury in two years during spring football practice. He would have been the Hogs unquestioned starter going into this season after leading the SEC in rushing during the regular season during 2016.
After the transfer of upperclassman Juan Day and Williams’ injury, the Razorbacks’ backfield consisted of sophomore Devwah Whaley (5-11, 216); freshman Maleek Williams (5-11, 218), who joined the squad in the spring; freshman Chase Hayden (5-10, 191), who joined the team in the summer; and two walk-ons.
Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema knew running backs coach Reggie Mitchell needed more material to work with the rigors of a SEC football season facing them, preferably someone with some maturity.
A decade ago, the Razorbacks would have been stuck. However, the NCAA’s graduate-transfer rule that allows a player who has finished his bachelor’s degree to transfer with a fifth year of eligibility to a school that offers a master’s degree in an area his current school does not.
That rule along with the good will of South Carolina coach Will Muschamp and the SEC office has allowed former Gamecock David Williams (6-1, 220) to transfer to the University of Arkansas to continue his education and play for the Razorbacks.
“I lost two of my top four backs,” Bielema said. “I knew we are going to be fine. Devwah Whaley is really good. I recruited two freshmen. I have had this a lot in my career where we lose a running back that’s really good and everybody is always worried. We’ve always had another guy come through, but I knew I wanted somebody with little bit more maturity the room. That presented an opportunity to talk to David.”
Bielema knew Williams well. He had recruited Williams out of Philadelphia, Pa., in his final season at Wisconsin.
“He actually had come to visit me when I was at Wisconsin,” Bielema said. “When I made the transition to Arkansas, I was thinking about recruiting David, but he went in a different direction and committed to South Carolina in the SEC.
“I made note of that. I knew where he was at. And then, you know, come full circle with Rawleigh’s situation, and then Juan Day is another player that probably would have been our fourth string tailback transfers.”
Williams had a rough time at South Carolina, going through two ACL repairs that keep him off the field much of his time at Columbia, S.C.
Bielema and Williams both saw the opportunity, but the SEC and Muschamp had to be on board.
“I reached out to the SEC office, asked the questions I needed to ask to have him transfer in, and got great information from the SEC office,” Bielema said. “Really then I just started the appeal process, and went through that.
“I give a lot of credit to Will and South Carolina. They were very cooperative, didn’t try to put a block on him or what not. I think this young man was recruited by Coach [Steve] Spurrier, brought in, and things didn’t go his way. He graduated on time and deserved an opportunity.
“Again, I give the Commissioner a lot of credit for forward thinking. There are some things coming into our game that never happened before. This rule, I’m sure people are going to like it or don’t like it.”
Bielema said he was torn about the rule at first, but has since embraced it.
“On the flip side of it, I had a running back [Zach Brown] who was the third string running back for me at Wisconsin,” Bielema said. “He was behind Montee Ball and James White. I knew he was a good player. He transferred to Pitt. He ended up starting for Pitt and had a chance to play in the NFL. I facilitated the whole thing. I knew he was going to get buried in our depth chart.”
Bielema, of course, benefitted from the rule himself at Wisconsin.
“I had a fifth-year transfer quarterback by the name of Russell Wilson come into my hands,” Bielema said. “He was in that position. Really I went after him because he was a grad transfer, and we had extreme bad luck at quarterback.
“My three most experienced quarterbacks were questionable to be in fall camp. Two of them ended up not playing that year. One of them was coming off his second or actually his third ACL repair. It was just an extreme situation of need, and Russell came up on the screen. This one kind of developed in somewhat the same way.”
Wilson led Wisconsin to a Big 10 Championship his only season with the Badgers. A year later, he was the NFL’s Rookie of the Year and quarterbacked the Seattle Seahawks to their only Super Bowl title.
Bielema said the graduate-transfer rule remains a touchy topic with coaches, but it’s one that can be good for players and teams in the right situation.
“It’s something, I think, we have to have a radar up about what’s going on in our league.” Bielema said. “You don’t want kids to have the ability to freely do these things or transfer without some restrictions, but again I give a lot of credit to the SEC in allowing this to happen because he truly is a kid that’s done everything right. He never had issues academically or off the field. We had a prior relationship and to bring him into a position of need, and his grad degree is going to be something that he’s interested in which was a little unique to us as well that allows him to get into some real estate and different things. It’s really a marriage made in heaven and a great addition to campus.”
It’s yet to be seen how Williams will fit into Arkansas’ pecking order at running back. As a junior at South Carolina, Williams rushed for 239 yards on 56 carries and caught 9 passes for 72 yards.
When practice starts Thursday, Whaley will be the starter. As a freshman, the Beaumont, Texas native rushed for 602 yards on 110 carries for a 5.5 yard-per-carry average, while scoring 3 touchdowns with a long run of 75 yards. He also caught 6 passes for 139 yards out of the backfield.
Williams, of Punta Gorda, Fla., had a solid spring. As a high school senior, he rushed 1,294 yards and 24 touchdowns.
Hayden hails from Memphis and is an all-purpose back. He rushed for 1,940 yards and scored 27 rushing touchdowns as a senior. He made 8 catches for 151 yards and 2 touchdowns.